NEWS ANALYSIS: Despite Growing Unease, Faith Won’t Be Going Away in 2000 Campaign

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) As the political conventions unfolded last month like old-fashioned tent revivals, with the nominees preaching stump sermons that featured everything except a chorus of “amens,” Ellen Johnson sat at her New Jersey home fuming. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore.

“Can we PLEASE have an end to the moral posturing and acts of public humiliation and knee-bending and get on with the real issues,” Johnson erupted in a blast fax to media outlets. “The repulsive use of religious creeds, slogans and doctrines as campaign stickers is reaching a fever pitch.”

That Johnson would be upset with the overt religiosity of the nation’s political leaders is not surprising, given that she is the national head of American Atheists Inc., as well as a self-described New Jersey soccer mom.

But there are signs that Johnson’s distaste _ albeit somewhat modulated _ may extend beyond the relatively small band of Americans who share her unbelief.

In newspapers, for example, some editorial writers and readers are expressing irritation with the amount of God-talk emanating not only from Republican candidate George W. Bush, but also from Democrat Al Gore and his Orthodox Jewish running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman.

“Unseemly political pandering,” opined the Providence (R.I.) Journal-Bulletin of the Democrats’ religious rhetoric. “It’s been as bad as some Republicans’ hypocritical efforts to cover themselves with bogus sanctity as born-again Christians.”

Even GOP-friendly columnist Cal Thomas, a former Moral Majority spokesman, has charged Republicans as “guilty of the same use and abuse of God” as the Democrats.

“If candidates speak of God and Jesus changing or directing their lives, that is one thing. But they should avoid enlisting the Creator in the campaign,” Thomas warned in a recent op-ed piece. “Those who fall into such temptation bring God down to human level and align him with temporal things. Better to allow God to instruct us directly, not through politicians who might properly be suspected of having an agenda.”

It’s not often that the religious right and the American Atheists wind up on the same side of an issue. Then again, personal faith has gone public this year with a bigger splash than a new offering on the NASDAQ.

In a speech he gave in Nashville, Tenn., when Gore introduced him as his choice for running mate, Lieberman _ “a Bible-drenched Democrat,” The New Republic called him _ mentioned God a dozen times and quoted from the Book of Chronicles.

Just weeks into the campaign, Lieberman told a black Detroit church that, “As a people, we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purposes” and that the Constitution provides the “freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”

Even before Lieberman’s big splash, however, the respective nominees were wearing their religion on both sleeves.

In the first and most widely followed comment, Bush last December cited Jesus as his favorite political philosopher, which struck some as odd, given Jesus’ apparent disinterest in politics and what many see as Bush’s selective reading of the Gospels.

But Gore, too, spoke openly and often about his born-again, Southern Baptist faith, saying he used the “What Would Jesus Do?” mantra before making political decisions.

These repeated references to Jesus bothered many Jewish leaders, in particular. Unlike Christians, Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and they are uneasy at the Jesus talk, given the record of aggressive proselytizing by some Christians.

“It’s inappropriate to hawk it on a campaign trail,” Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, said of Bush’s comments at the time. After initially defending Lieberman’s strong religious faith, Foxman later went after Lieberman _ a fellow Jew _ calling his religious rhetoric “inappropriate and even unsettling.”

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The criticism is not only voiced by non-Christians, or to traditionalist Christians who fear that politics will taint their faith.

“I think it is inappropriate,” the Rev. Robert Moore, a Princeton pastor who heads the Coalition for Peace Action, said of the many references to Jesus.

A leader of what might be called the “religious left” _ he was in Philadelphia for the GOP convention to lobby for gun control _ Moore said faith should inform politicians’ lives. But he cautioned that the current speechifying makes him “uncomfortable.”

“My problem is the self-righteousness that accompanies this mind-set,” Moore said. The talk of Jesus “starts to cross that line,” he said. “It begins to border on a theocracy.”

In reality, these objections are unlikely to change the religious tenor of the campaigns.

Experts in religion and politics say that given the decline of the political influence of hard-line religious conservatives, candidates today feel they can talk about faith without getting pigeonholed as captive to the religious right.

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Whatever the degree of unease, most Americans clearly want to hear more about religion from their political leaders, especially after the Clinton sex scandals.

Opinion surveys consistently put morality and values at the top of the list of voter concerns this election year, and a Gallup poll last December showed Americans are twice as likely to support presidential candidates who talk about “their personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Lieberman has also made it clear that he will not stop talking about his Judaism.

“I hope people understand the difference between separation of church and state and an individual’s right, including a public individual’s right, to express matters of faith,” he told a group of reporters from Jewish publications.

The main risk in using the stump as a pulpit is not necessarily that the public will see the candidates as religious frauds, said the Rev. Robert W. Edgar, head of the National Council of Churches. “When they come across as genuine, they do fine,” said Edgar, a former congressman who says he can attest to the religious sincerity of all the candidates.

The real problem with religious rhetoric, he said, is that “people want to hear it, but not all the time. Even Lieberman could do it too often.”

“I think any of us who are people of faith can overwork it by overmoralizing, by wanting society to conform to our vision,” Edgar said. “We don’t want someone who is too religious. But we also don’t want a leader with no faith.

“We’re in a country of balance.”

KRE END GIBSON

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